Read Melanie Phillips' memoir and politely disagree: it will annoy her

A fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire.

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain
Melanie Phillips
emBooks, 128pp, £7.20 (ebook)

When I worked at the Daily Mail – I know, I’m sorry, please put down the pitchfork! – we had a running joke. Every week, we ran a “Saturday essay” and we discovered that, whatever the ostensible subject of this 1,800-word tract, it could always fit under the headline “The great betrayal”.

It’s tempting to suggest that this explains why Melanie Phillips found the paper to be such an agreeable home after 21 years working on the Guardian and the Observer. Despite her success and public profile – she has appeared on Question Time twice as often in the past 18 months as all of Britain’s scientists put together – Phillips feels betrayed, marginalised and vilified. She is a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers, urging the destruction of the family, pushing the myth of climate change and insisting on compulsory gayness lessons for under-fives.

Does this sound like a Britain you recognise? It doesn’t to me and, as I read further through this book, I began to feel that Phillips was that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator. She clearly describes the facts and then leaps to a conclusion so unexpected, so different to the one I would draw, that I feel breathless.

For example, after Phillips begins to write columns about education at the Guardian, she receives many letters disagreeing with her – although those that agree often mention that theirs is the minority view and they are afraid to challenge the consensus. She concludes: “What was being described was more akin to life in a totalitarian state. Dissent was being silenced, and those who ran against the orthodoxy were being forced to operate in secret.” Now, I know that rightwingers like to mock the Guardian’s relatively low circulation figures but writing a column there is hardly “operating in secret”. And where are all the columns supporting progressive ideas in the Mail? Or is it only “silencing dissent” when left-wing papers have an editorial line?

There are several incidents like this, in which Phillips recounts how oppressed she was by the Guardianistas, followed swiftly by the flat assertion that she was then appointed leader writer, news editor, columnist or editor of an environmental supplement (even after telling her then editor, Peter Preston, that she believed there was no evidence for man-made climate change).

The vocabulary of this book – “shibboleths”, “hate-mongering”, “denounced”, “besmirch”, “mind-bending” – suggests that she enjoys extreme adversarialism, even while raging against it. Finally, when she leaves the Observer – not before applying to be its editor – for the Sunday Times, she quickly becomes bored with not being attacked: “It just wasn’t where the action was because it was not in the front line of the culture war. My place was on the front line.”

This is a fascinating psychological portrait of a woman who seems to feel most alive when under fire. The chapters about her family – her controlling mother and passive father, her monstrous grandmother, suspected of being partially responsible for the death of her aunt – would provide fodder for an army of therapists. So read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that.

Melanie Phillips appearing on BBC Question Time.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era